Article By: Paul Schifferli
We all know about Mogwai from the hit 1984 horror-comedy film Gremlins by Joe Dante, and its sequel in 1990. The main draw to the movie, for many, was Gizmo, who quickly, and probably intentionally, became the mascot for the film franchise, even though he is not the namesake. Many are enamored by Gizmo’s adorable appearance and childish, but endearing mannerisms, but despite Gizmo being a lasting icon of 80’s culture, not much is known about Mogwai. In this dissertation, I intend to delve into the nature of the Mogwai, based on admittedly what little we know about them.
To start: What is a Mogwai? Well, A Mogwai is a creature from Chinese folklore, and while the word has no direct translation, it can be thought of as either a spirit, a faerie, or even a demon. In Chinese folklore, they are considered to be evil creatures with superhuman strength. There is no consistent depiction of what a “classic interpretation” of a Mogwai looks like, but for the sake of this dissertation, let’s say that their appearance in the film is what they look like. The only common thread that the Mogwai in the films share with their classic counterparts is their reproduction. In the film, as you assuredly known, Mogwai reproduce asexually when they get wet. In Chinese mythology, the Mogwai mating season is during rainy seasons.
Now, we need to briefly touch on the elephant in the room, which is the Mogwai origin that is covered in the novelization of Gremlins by George Gipe. During the prologue, the novel states that the Mogwai are creatures that were created by an alien scientist named Mogturmen, and were created as good will ambassadors to inspire universal peace. However, the creatures were flawed and instead became a pestilence on any world they have been on. By the time of the novel’s proper start, Gizmo is the only remaining Mogwai in the universe. It should be noted that this backstory does not appear in the film, it is not referenced in the film, and it is not present in the early draft of the Gremlins script, so we can safely assume that it is not the canon background. And frankly, the less said about it, the better, because it’s a terrible, corny backstory and completely ruins the mystique of the Mogwai
So, let’s go with the first summation. A Mogwai is an evil faerie from China. This lines up logically, considering that Gizmo’s caretaker, before Billy, was Mr. Wing, and that Mogwai seem to be naturally evil. You need only look to the films for that proof. Each time Gizmo has reproduced, ALL of his offspring have been evil. From this, the only conclusion we can reach is that Mogwai are naturally evil creatures. Even thematically, they are evil, as they are repelled by light, which is generally considered a good thing, at least for the purposes of storytelling. Gizmo is an outlier. Why this is, we may never know. Perhaps Gizmo was born different from the others, or perhaps he was tamed over time. If he was tamed over time, it is likely that Mr. Wing was the one who tamed him, but even this is uncertain. Neither film states how old Gizmo is, and if we are going on the assumption that Gizmo is a faerie, he could very well be hundreds of years old, and that would mean that he was passed down to Mr. Wing. It is possible Gizmo is a kind of family heirloom that has been handed down throughout several generations.
Let’s talk for a moment what we know for certain about Mogwai biology. We know that they reproduce asexually when they get wet. Because of this, it is highly likely that Mogwai are genderless, with the exception of the Female Gremlin, or Greta, from Gremlins 2, but since she was changed by a chemical mutation, it’s up to the reader whether she counts. An interesting point is that the only thing that will make them reproduce is actual water. The Gremlins have been seen consuming beer and soda, and it does not cause them to reproduce. Additionally, when Stripe initially escapes Billy’s house and retreats to the Kingston Falls YMCA, Billy follows Stripe’s tracks in the snow. So, this also means that frozen water does not count as “getting wet”. On that note, we also know that when a Mogwai reproduces in the adult Gremlin state, it’s offspring will be fully matured Gremlins. It is difficult to say for sure, but this would suggest that unlike most living things, where maturing from one stage to another is the natural progression of life, the stages of life for Mogwai is based on a personal choice of the individual. Although Gizmo appears to be the only one that prefers to stay in the juvenile state.
We also know that Mogwai are highly sensitive to bright light, even to the point of melting upon contact with sunlight. Furthermore, we know that they attain the second stage of their life cycle by consuming food after midnight. This stage is known as the “Gremlin” stage, although it should be noted that this could be a misnomer. The term “Gremlin” was given to the creatures by Murray Futterman, who applied the term based a folklore creature from World War II that tampered with machinery (which to be fair, was fairly accurate, by observation.) But in China, where these creatures originate, it is entirely possible that both forms are considered Mogwai.
Based on what we know about their light sensitivity in particular, Mogwai in their native land of China, most likely either lived in dense forests that could shield them from the sunlight, or perhaps even dwelled in caves. If they were allowed to become numerous enough, it is possible that they would invade human communities and take over, driving the people out and keeping the dwellings and possessions for themselves.
In their juvenile state, which is most commonly associated with their name, Mogwai, they are roughly eight to ten inches tall, give or take an inch. When they reach their “Gremlin” stage, they stand somewhere around three feet tall. In their juvenile stage they are small, furry bi-peds with stubby limbs that can only be described as cute. This may be a natural defense, in appearing pleasant, people will want to protect, even spoil them, without realizing their true malevolent nature. When they reach their mature stage, they lose all of their fur (with one exception), take on a more reptilian appearance, and their limbs become gangly, especially their arms, which are almost as long as their entire body.
As far as the Chinese myth goes, Gremlins do not seem to possess superhuman strength, although they definitely have strength disproportionate to their size, evidenced when Mohawk in Gremlins 2 knocks a fully grown adult unconscious from a single punch. While they are extremely susceptible to bright light, Gremlins are quite durable, shrugging off blunt force trauma with little care. However, they can be killed by being stabbed, cut up, or shot. Despite this durability, Mogwai do have moments when they are extremely vulnerable. The first being when they are reproducing, which appears to cause them such pain that they are unable to move. The second time when a Mogwai is completely defenseless is during their pupa stage, when they are encased in cocoons
On the subject of their diet, Mogwai seem to be able to eat anything. In fact, in the Gremlins novelization, during the first chapter, Mr. Wing is seen feeding Gizmo leftover eggrolls, rice, broccoli, and pork, as well as a piece of cardboard. Mr. Wing does this because he learned that Gizmo can ingest anything and takes a scientific curiosity in what Gizmo will eat. The book also states that Gizmo is aware the cardboard isn’t food, but it won’t hurt him to eat it, so he does so to appease Mr. Wing. In an early draft of the Gremlins script, Mr. Wing says that the Mogwai can eat anything, but he adds ominously that they prefer raw meat.
During the Mogwai’s juvenile stage, they have teeth that resemble the teeth of humans or primates (with the exception of Mohawk, who had fangs in his juvenile stage). When they become Gremlins, they have fangs. This could suggest that they are naturally carnivores, but it is more likely that they are omnivorous. In their mature stage, they prefer junk food or anything that can be considered unhealthy, although they seem to have a penchant for sweet-tasting foods above all else. They appear to even have a disdain for healthy food, as the Gremlin in the high school science lab in the first movie was scene tossing away an apple in abject disgust.
Mogwai seem to possess intelligence that would be on par with an adolescent human. They are capable of speaking some words, and in the film, we can see that Stripe is able to read when he reads Mrs. Deagle’s real estate sign. They are well aware of their own life cycle and actively try to eat after midnight (Gizmo excluded), and even show a degree of cunning as they figure out how to trick Billy into feeding them past the safe time frame by sabotaging the clock on his nightstand.
Now, the real meat of this subject is Mogwai behavior. Gizmo being excluded, Mogwai are unquestionably malicious. They have no sort of culture, choosing instead to just mindlessly consume whatever they encounter that entertains them. That is the crux of their behavioral traits. Mogwai seem to care only for their own enjoyment, regardless of whether this annoys or harms others. In fact, terrorizing humans seem to be one of the things they enjoy most. That and just being generally obnoxious, even towards each other. They are genuinely malicious, and can be driven to murder humans, if they feel they have been wronged by that person. But by and large, most of the people that have been injured or killed by the Gremlins were simply the end result of said Gremlins having their own particular brand of fun. Combine this with their aforementioned durability, and at best, the Gremlins can be considered a dangerous annoyance, and at worst, they are psychopathic sadists. This is especially true of Stripe.
Stripe, as mentioned before, is the only Gremlin that retains any hair from his juvenile stage, specifically the small patch of fur on the top of his head. Stripe is an interesting specimen all on his own, as he is unique from all other Gremlins. All the other Gremlins are essentially identical, at least in the first Gremlins, but Stripe has the patch of fur that distinguishes him from all other Gremlins. Also, it should be noted that he is clearly more intelligent, more serious, and above all, more aggressive than the other Gremlins, which make him easily the most dangerous of the group. We can infer from this that Stripe is the Alpha Mogwai. What is perhaps the most fascinating thing is that Mohawk in Gremlins 2 is unquestionably Stripe reincarnated. This is shown in the film due to the fact Mohawk calls Gizmo by name, even though he had not heard his name beforehand, which means we can only conclude that Mohawk remembers his previous life as Stripe. As such, Mohawk’s main motivation in the film is to enact revenge on Gizmo (and possibly Billy), which makes sense as Mohawk spends the majority of his on-screen time torturing Gizmo.
The implication of this is that Stripe is quite possibly not just AN Alpha Mogwai, but THE Alpha Mogwai. Imagine if you will, ancient China, during the rainy seasons, beset by an infestation of these creatures, always led by a single adult Mogwai with a patch of white fur on his head. Imagine entire military campaigns that are dedicated to culling the infestation of Mogwai that have overrun farming communities, and possibly even entire cities. Of course, it is possible that Stripe can only be reincarnated through Gizmo, but there is no way to verify this.
We also need to answer an important question, which is why the Mogwai, and by extension, the Gremlins, look different in Gremlins 2. As previously established, in the first film, all the Gremlins look identical aside from Stripe, and even in their juvenile state, they still closely resemble Gizmo, Stripe included, with only minor differences. In the sequel, however, they become far more distinguishable from Gizmo, having different fur patterns, different hair color, and unique facial features. Mohawk is the most unique of them all, having eyes that resemble the Gremlin stage, and fangs. Interestingly, only the initial Mogwai that are born from Gizmo have these distinguishing characteristics. Not to mention that when they become Gremlins, their appearance is slightly different from the first film. In the first film, the Gremlins have dry, scaly reptilian skin, whereas in the sequel, their skin looks slick, almost amphibian-like. When the others reproduce, their offspring are identical, as in the first film. Of course, several of these Gremlins gain unique appearances, but these are due to their tampering with the volatile serums, hormones, and other chemicals in the Splice O’ Life laboratory in the Clamp Center.
The “Brain Gremlin” even makes mention that his species, or his “ethnic group” as he himself puts it, are quite receptive to such potent genetic material as found in the lab. This shows us that Mogwai are highly susceptible to their environment. This might explain why the Mogwai that Gizmo book look so unique. The environment Gizmo was in when he reproduced during the first movie was a place he had come to accept as home. It was comfortable, warm, and safe. In the sequel, he is in a massive office building, where he had been captured and experimented on. He was alone, scared and his stress levels were undoubtedly high. This could be a likely reason that the Mogwai came out look completely different. And because their appearance was altered in their juvenile stage, their mature stage changed as well. The Gremlins known as George, Lenny, and Daffy retain their facial characteristics from their juvenile stage, with Lenny being rather unique in that he is the only Gremlin without fangs, instead retaining his large buck teeth from his juvenile stage. Of course, Mohawk, being the alpha, is once again the most distinguishable Gremlin, once again bearing a mark of his alpha status atop his head. However, instead of a patch of white fur, he has a kind of dorsal fin atop his head that resembles the spines of a lionfish, and the skin on his face is pulled back taut against his skull, making him look far more demonic than any Gremlin ever has before.
One interesting thing of note is that while Mohawk is unquestionably the alpha, and initially, the other Mogwai defer to him, it is eventually the Brain Gremlin that leads the infestation of the Clamp Tower Gremlins. This is likely because Mohawk was consumed with revenge, and had no interest in leading the others, at least until his thirst for vengeance was satisfied. This is shown subtly during the film, because at no point during the film do you see Mohawk with another Gremlin on screen once they have progressed to their adult stage.
So, after considering the biology, and behavioral traits of the Mogwai, the question that any horror/monster fan must ask is, what kind of threat are they to the human race, or the world in general? Quite simply, their threat level is entirely dependent on how numerous they are allowed to become. Much like zombies, the more there are, the more threatening they become. An infestation of two or three gremlins will not likely cause a person too much trouble, as the creatures seem to be mostly interested with entertaining themselves, and are easily distracted, but the threat can easily become out of control if they can easily access water. With their alpha in close proximity to command them, they can be considered even more dangerous. It would seem that with sufficient numbers and the right amount of firepower, a Gremlin infestation could be contained. The only issue is that this group must be absolutely thorough, as it only takes one Gremlin to escape and access water, and the whole thing will start again, possibly on a larger scale.